Since about the midpoint of the series, I've been contemplating the different moral viewpoints being offered in Fullmetal Alchemist. I've mentioned some of this in comments before, but I wanted to update it slightly and put it in all in one place (because, hey, I haven't written enough about anime this weekend).
Unfortunately, I'm very tired, and this feels like it's coming out flat and obvious and not at all interesting; but if I don't finish this tonight, I won't for ages. If it sucks, I'm sorry for inflicting it on you all.
Enormous, enjoyment-destroying spoilers up through episode 40. If you spoil me for episodes after 40, I will kill you with my brain.
Competing moral worldviews in Fullmetal Alchemist, including equivalent exchange, the creation of life, childhood, and cooperation
I guess the place to start is with Al's opening voiceover:
Humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost. That is alchemy's first law of equivalent exchange.
In those days, we really believed that to be the world's one and only truth.
The meanings of equivalent exchange and whether it is a truth of the world, rather than just of alchemy, get elaborated through various characters:
- Young Ed: a moral imperative in a very literal, weighing manner. In episode 13, he makes a deal with Roy: if he wins their duel, then Roy will tell them about Marcoh and take care of Al's cat. He wins, but refuses to make Roy keep the cat, saying that it's not equivalent exchange: he seems to think that he got more than he bargained for, and so must not take it all. Which doesn't make anyone happy that we can see (except maybe Roy, since he prefers dogs).
- Tucker, Envy, and Lust in Lab 5: descriptive and prescriptive truth. "In order to achieve anything in life, you have to take it from someone else." According to them, all adults know this: denying it is a child's viewpoint.
- Izumi Curtis: not the way the world works. Her child gave up his life before he was even born, and got nothing in return. In a less bitter moment, when talking to the little girl whose cat died, she talks of life and its passing as part of the natural course and flow of the world, where one thing affects another.
- Dante: descriptive (at least) truth. You only get as much happiness as you put in effort.
It's somewhat trivial to point out that Tucker, Envy, and Lust are the bad guys [*], and therefore their worldviews are suspect—but some might find that a dubious basis for judging a philosophy. Fortunately, it's also trivial to point out that their worldview is factually wrong; there are lots of things in life that one can achieve without taking from someone else, including life itself (there's a reason that after Lab 5, Ed and Al go to Elysia's birthday party).
(Dante's take on this is different, but I think also wrong, since there are things that I get happiness out of without putting in any effort at all (sunshine), or not in proportion to the amount of work I put in (marriage). Her viewpoint seems less destructive on its face than that of Envy et al., but on the other hand, she did have a Philosopher's Stone and it's looking more and more like there's no non-evil way to get one, so it may had have unexpected results in practice.)
[*] I note that the people who espouse equivalent exchange as a prescriptive truth have, in practice, only achieved the warping, destruction, and simulation of life: faking resurrections, binding prisoners' souls into armor, turning humans (including one's daughter, in painful contrast to Elysia) into chimeras, and murdering entire cities through war, the Red Water, plague, or what-have-you. (Which, to me, casts doubt on the Homunculi's claims that they want the Philosopher's Stone to be alive.) And the creation of the Homunculi themselves, of course, results from the idea that there's something you can trade for life, even if their makers might repudiate equivalent exchange later. [I don't know enough yet to see how Rose's baby fits into this, but I feel that it must.]
A perhaps slightly less trivial observation about the Envy et al. viewpoint is that it sets up a dichotomy between adulthood and childhood: children can be innocent and idealistic, but adults must confront the prescriptive truth of equivalent exchange. This dichotomy is also false: along the lines of what others have pointed out, children have moral responsibility as well. Ed and Al were children when they attempted to resurrect their mother, but I don't think anyone has ever suggested that they don't bear responsibility for what they did.
However, we see other characters buy into this dichotomy: to varying degrees, the sympathetic military characters view Ed and Al as children who should be protected from hard choices, hard knowledge, or danger. Their intentions are good, but they're still wrong, and I think the consequences demonstrate this: Hughes goes off to confront "Juliet Douglas" trying to protect the Elrics (and Mustang) and gets killed; and Mustang keeps the truth about Lior from the brothers and makes Ed so angry he goes to Archer (yes, I'm still boggled at this).
I'm having a hard time phrasing this precisely, but it seems to me that a non-zero-sum view of the world, which values and creates life, also values the moral autonomy and responsibility that is important to living. Which means cooperation rather than cut-throat competition, and allowing others (young or old) to make their own choices, and sharing information—which is why still not telling the Elrics about Hughes is a terrible idea, and possibly why Winry should've told Ross more about what they were doing (I'm not sure if she was trying to protect Ross, or if she wasn't sure if she could trust Ross).
Or, in short: just talk to each other already! Besides being necessary to keep yourselves all alive, it's the morally proper thing to do in the Fullmetal Alchemist universe. (And save some cats while you're at it, too, huh?)
Addenum on revenge
Comments on my episode 40 post reminded me that I completely neglected Scar specifically, and revenge generally, in this discussion. Since revenge is much discussed in the show, this was, uh, kind of a big oversight.
I believe that there is at least one conversation in which revenge is explicitly cast as equivalent exchange, but I can't recall now where it is. At any rate, "an eye for an eye" is hardly original to FMA, whether you think of that exchange as justice or revenge. [*] Scar's moral failure is in treating the lives of State alchemists and soldiers as interchangable for the lives of those who actually wronged him. Sure, go after Kimblee—preferably before he can kill Ed, please. But Ed had nothing to do with Ishbal, and many of the soldiers he's planning to exterminate to create the Philosopher's Stone had nothing to do with Ishbal (or Rose) either.
Of course, Scar doesn't believe in equivalent exchange as an alchemical principle, so the parallel is not exact; but Envy does, and badly wants to take out its grievances with Ed's father on Ed. Winry doesn't, and has so far refrained from whacking Mustang over the head with a wrench.
Interestingly, Marta was motivated by revenge, but her death was not a result of that motivation, it seems to me: her attack on Pride was principally to stop it from happening again. I suppose one could say that because Al stopped her from attacking Kimblee, she survived to find out about Pride and to warn Al. This seems a little tenuous to me, but not out of the question.
[*] We see basically nothing of justice as an institution in the series, which no longer surprises me after episode 40's revelations. First we think that a criminal has been executed without public trial (Tucker), then we find that criminals are instead used for experiments in Lab 5. (The pursuit of Psiren the thief seems relatively free of corruption, but she gets away.) The line between revenge and (non-institutional) justice is something I think future episodes may confront.